A Million Dead-End Streets

by Quinn

“We are the change makers”, thundered Tony Blair last week, giving it the big “I am” before the Labour Party conference. A very odd sounding phrase, I thought, but one that got me thinking about change, and our attitudes towards change.

If you were to take a look at our common sayings and phrases then change is universally regarded as being positive; it “will do you good”, it is “as good as a rest”. Certainly, I can’t think of a phrase along the lines of “change will make you look like a right twat when you return to work after a fortnight off”. But in real life change is not always seen in such rosy terms; how often, for example, do we hear teachers complain that what the profession needs most of all is a period of stability after endless reforms?

I imagine that it was a recognition of such everyday resistance to change (along with a desire to make a shed load of money) that led Spencer Johnson to write Who Moved My Cheese?, a management parable of how to deal with change in the workplace. Now I haven’t read the book, so I may be off course here, but I know people who have, and opinion seems sharply divided on its merits. The partners at the firm where my friend works think it is a great book, so much so that they bought a copy each for all their staff. The staff think it is a patronising load of shite, and if they are to be believed than I can see why. The moral of Who Moved My Cheese? seems to be that change is always for the good, always to be welcomed, it cannot be avoided, so just get on with it and do as you are told (as I say, I haven’t read it myself, so if I have misunderstood its message then I am happy to be corrected).

Why such a divergence of opinion about the book, and indeed about change in the workplace in general? I suppose it depends on your position within the firm. At work I am far more of a change taker than a change maker. I wouldn’t say that my colleagues and I are resistant to change, indeed we will often suggest changes and improvements to our line managers; it is just that we are rarely listened to. Usually the changes that we do have to deal with are top-down, made by people who have never done our job, and who often appear to be making change for change’s sake; indeed at times it seems as if some peoples’ jobs depend upon tinkering with the parts of the system that appear to be working just fine, while leaving the myriad problems in place. Moreover, somethimes what the change makers announce as a vital new development for the business is recognised by the rest of us as a way of just reverting to how things used to be done 5 years ago; and for those with longer memories, to that way things were done 5 years before that.

What of the change makers themselves? Well, often (although by no means exclusively) their position in a firm is a purely transitory one; perhaps they don’t hang around long enough to develop the same cynicism towards change. They may well be on a promotion fast track, barely in one job for any length of time before they are moved on further up the corporate ladder and away from the consequences of their actions. They may be parachuted in from a private equity company to make swift, short-term changes before they sell up and move on. Or they may be from a management consultancy, whose only responsibility at times can appear to be to make changes, get paid and then bugger off; they don’t seem to have any obvious incentive or vested interest in actually improving their clients’ business. Who do these management consultants actually consult with anyway? They have never consulted me; we just get their reforms handed to us as a fait accompli. Has a consultant ever come into a company and said, “D’you know what, things here are working really well, we can’t improve on your current system. Goodbye”. I very much doubt it; they have to get paid for doing something, so they will move things around a bit, even if all they actually do is to change things back to the way they were before the last load of management consultants got called in. It is a bit like the interior designers on Changing Rooms; if they see an old Georgian fireplace in a room they feel the need to cover it up, but if the fireplace is already covered up they just have to dig it out and restore it. There may be some very good management consultants knocking around, but I haven’t yet knowingly stumbled upon one.

And so back to Blair; how does he fit into this pattern? He has always been fascinated by his place in history, and his renewed zeal is perhaps because he knows he is running out of time, and that his current spot in the history books is deep down in a lengthy chapter entitled Iraq-The Quagmire. So with extra verve he wants to make reforms, to be the change maker; but rather like the transitory manager he knows full well that he will be off in a couple of years time, and that if things do go tits-up they will likely land on Gordon Brown’s toes. No wonder he wants to push for change, while Brown is considered the more cautious; Blair is acting like a bad management consultant.

But at least we know that Blair will soon be on his way; and that is at least one change that I am looking forward to.